Buildings of Mississippi State University–Patterson Engineering Laboratories

Patterson Engineering Laboratories, Front (West) Facade, Looking Southeast, August 2008

This is the inaugural post in what I hope will be a regular series of posts regarding the buildings of Mississippi State University. I should naturally focus the first post on an important, widely known building of historical prominence such as Lee Hall or the YMCA or Perry Cafeteria or Montgomery Hall. But I have chosen not to. Those buildings, deservedly, get enough attention from alumni and the general public. This post is about the ignored, awkwardly named Patterson Engineering Laboratories, which is not even featured on Mississippi State’s historic buildings webpage.

Patterson Engineering Laboratories, Front (West) Facade, Looking Northeast, April 2010

Located at 516 Hardy Road, in the heart of engineering section of the campus, not far from the Drill Field, and surrounded by historic buildings, the Patterson Engineering Laboratories (which is one structure and will be referred to as Patterson Engineering throughout the post to make the subject and verb appropriately match) was constructed in 1949. Dr. Fred Tom Mitchell was president of then Mississippi State College and Fielding L. Wright (merely a year removed from his placement as the Dixiecrat vice-presidential candidate of Strom Thurmond in the previous presidential election) was both Governor and “Ex-Officio Chairman” of the State Building Commission. Former and future governor Hugh L. White, whose good taste in architecture and architects has been previously noted on Preservation in Mississippi, also served on the State Building Commission. The plaque near the main stairwell on the first floor states that L. B. Priester & Son was the General Contractor. That name also appears on the Poultry Science building across campus. The firm of Trolio & Liddle is listed as the architects for the structure. That Jackson firm seems to have specialized in educational structures, the destroyed Benton Elementary School in Yazoo County being another example of their work. The Consulting Architect listed on the plaque is much more familiar to Mississippi architecture aficionados: N. W. Overstreet.

Noah Webster Overstreet almost needs no introduction; his influence on Mississippi architecture is still present today. Overstreet brought modern architecture to Mississippi, both in architectural style and professional practice. He was heavily involved from the beginning in the Mississippi chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Yet, to my knowledge, the Patterson Engineering Laboratories is one of the only major buildings he was involved with that was constructed on the MSU campus. All of the main structures at MSU were constructed either before or after his main body of work. Claude Lindsley and R.H. Hunt are the names most commonly found on cornerstones and building plaques at MSU, not Overstreet. Even the ones he is connected to, he is usually a consulting or associate architect, not the primary one.

Patterson Engineering Laboratories, Portrait of Lucius Lamar Patterson, First Story Hallway, April 2010

In the present day atmosphere of money determining a collegiate structure’s name, it is interesting to note the man for whom the Patterson Engineering Laboratories building is dedicated. Lucius Lamar Patterson dourly stares down upon present day young engineers in the building dedicated to his memory. Referred to as an engineer, educator, and administrator, Patterson was professor and Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1914 to 1947. In addition, he served as Dean of the School of Engineering from 1930 to 1949. This building can thus be seen as the culmination of Patterson’s educational career.

Patterson Engineering Laboratories, Front (West) Facade, South Entrance, April 2008

I have always been enamored with the Patterson Engineering Laboratories. The building bridges the gap between art moderne and mid-century modern. From the exterior, one sees clean lines and a long, horizontal form. The inset central section reinforces this impression through the concrete bands that run along that section of the façade, separating the first and second floors, as well as framing the “Patterson Engineering Laboratories” lettering. These bands give a sense of action and motion to the building that is more indicative of moderne than what is seen with mid-century modern boxes. The lettering is another reason to appreciate this structure; the font screams out that this building belongs to the Space Age. The 1950s engineering feel continues with the original front doors still present in both entrance bays. Perhaps it is my imagination but I can fully imagine J. Robert Oppenheimer, Werner von Braun, Richard Feynman, or any number of other scientific greats walking through those doors.

Patterson Engineering Laboratories, Detail of Lettering on Set of Double Doors, April 2010

If the exterior gives the illusion of being in 1949, the interior completes the impression. Unlike so many other institutional buildings, the interior is not maligned by drop ceilings or cheap remuddlings; the hallways soar upwards to original light fixtures as the large paned, original windows allow copious amounts of light to illuminate the front halls on both floors. The interior doors are all mostly original, some still containing gold lettering likely as old as the building. Colorful, original tilework surrounds vintage water fountains inset into hallway walls. The omnipresent vending machine is the only noticeable intrusion of the present into the illusion of the past.

Patterson Engineering Laboratories, First Floor Stairwell

Not only is the Patterson Engineering Laboratories building historic and unchanged from its original appearance but Trolio & Liddle and N. W. Overstreet’s design is a superb, functional one. The large windows allow natural light into the structure, still essential today in order to cut down upon energy costs. Of course, the architects could not simply have a plain interior; the main stairwell provides a deviation from functionality for the sake of aesthetics. Its sense of motion also reinforces some of the art moderne touches seen on the exterior.

While the façade is what often receives the most focus in historic buildings, the interior is what we experience and gives us the true sense that we are in a historic building. I would encourage all Preservation in Mississippi readers to visit and walk the halls of the Patterson Engineering Laboratories, but it is still a working laboratory, home to one of the oldest Departments of Aerospace Engineering in the nation, so perhaps just enjoy the photographs.

Patterson Engineering Laboratories, Front (West) Facade, Looking Southeast, April 2010

All photographs copyright W. White 2008, 2010. All reproduction is prohibited without written permission.



Categories: Cool Old Places, Modernism, Starkville, Universities/Colleges

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7 replies

  1. Thank you for highlighting this stunning building!

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  2. One of the best buildings on the campus, and perhaps the state. I admired this one back in the 70s and 80s. Luckily, it escaped being “decorated,” unlike some of its less-fortunate mid-century brothers and sisters on campus.

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  3. Great information on a building I think is an underappreciated jewel on campus. Interestingly, NW Overstreet’s name is associated with many more buildings than just Patterson Engineering; his various firms are listed as architects for a number of buildings on campus, including:

    Animal Husbandry Building
    Boys’ Dormitories A / B / C/ D (Boomerang)
    Butler Williams Alumni House and Student Building
    Perry Cafeteria Remodeling and Kitchen Addition
    Gym and Educational Building
    Old Main Dormitory
    YMCA

    Having said that, I’m not sure the degree to which he was personally involved, but his name is found in the records of many buildings. I have a listing of Overstreet projects, compiled by the MSU Libraries, that I would be happy to share. If you’d like it, contact me at my firstname dot lastname at msstate.edu

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    • You are right, part of that statement was an oversight on my part that has now been corrected.

      Many of the buildings you have on your list are, like Patterson, ones where he was not the primary architect, which was the point I was trying to make. For such a prominent architect, he is represented architecturally on the MSU campus by very few buildings. The YMCA is Overstreet’s true campus landmark.

      Old Main, Perry Cafeteria, and Lloyd-Ricks (which I assume is the Animal Husbandry Building you are referring to) were all designed by other architects such as Claude Lindsley and Theodore Link. Although Overstreet did additions or remodellings, it would not be accurate to say that he was responsible for their designs or campus presence. Since most of the Boomerang Dorms have been demolished, I do not know much about them. Also, there are a couple of old Gyms on campus, which one was Overstreet responsible for?

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      • I don’t know for certain which gym is associated with Overstreet, but given the description of the building and the time of construction (drawing date 1948), I would guess this is the McCarthy Gym (constructed in 1950), This is, of course, only a guess. Thanks for a great article on a hidden gem in Starkville!

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  4. Overstreet also cut his teeth working as a draftsman for R.H. Hunt, according to the MDAH Historic Resources Database: “Born in Eastabutchie, Jones Co., and graduated from Mississippi A&M in 1908 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. While at A&M, he worked a summer in the office of R.H. HUNT, who at that time had several projects at the Mississippi campus.” https://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov/Public/rpt.aspx?rpt=artisanSearch&Name=overstreet%2C%20noah&City=Any&Role=Any

    And don’t miss Overstreet’s college yearbook write-up, which mentions R.H. Hunt: https://misspreservation.com/2014/05/21/architect-pics-young-n-w-overstreet/

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  5. Just now getting to read this post. Can’t wait to go inside! All the times I have driven by it, I had no idea how beautiful it is on the inside. Thank you for pointing out all of the many wonderful attributes encompassed.

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